Dating & the coming of God
"When we think about the coming of Christ at the end of times, often we represent this to ourselves as the waiting for someone who is now absent"
One of the most predictable questions in a job interview is “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”. It is a way for employers to assess whether the candidates’ long-term career objectives and personal goals are aligned to the role they are applying for – and to make sure that if they get the job, they will bring personal motivation in the fulfilment of their role. True, with a bit of research, it is easy to figure out the answer expected by a given employer – and yet this remains a question worth asking because it helps at the very least to verify whether there has been some thinking about it.
Personally, I find that it is a question worth asking myself from time to time - “Luigi, where do you see yourself in 1, 3, or 10 years”. It makes me aware of whether what I do in the present time really is contributing to what I want to be or achieve in the long term. Few years ago, when I was still teaching in a Pontifical University in Rome, I asked myself this very question and realized that academic life was not making me happy and that within 3 to 5 years I saw myself making theology available to people non-initiated to it, with a focus on spirituality – I wanted to help people to pray better. It was a long-term endeavour which required quite a lot of adjustments – and eventually moving to the UK. I did not need to know how to achieve this goal over time there and then – just setting the goal helped me to make sure that most of the decisions I took from that moment onwards would keep me in that direction. Having goals which correspond to who we are, what we really want, and possibly what our real good is, is an invaluable help to keep ourselves motivated in the long run.
Something similar applies to our Christian life – the Gospel asks us: Where, how do you see yourself not just in 1, 3 or 10 years’ time, but on just a tiny longer time scale – where/how do you see yourself at the end of time? And somehow with the same purpose: keep us highly motivated or, as Luke says, “dressed for action”, with our “lamps lit” and “ready”.
In all fairness, the description of this endgame is a bit nebulous. All we are given are images: we should be like servants expecting the return of their master, or in the unenviable position of homeowners who become aware that they have become the target of a thief. Such images sound less like incentives and more like threats. They invite the kind of alertness which is triggered by potential dangers rather than the passion elicited by the prospect of self-fulfilment and happiness.
And yet this seemed to work quite well for the first generations of Christians: they expected the return of Christ eagerly and this shaped their worship, their dealings with political authorities, and their views, among other things, on marriage and sexuality. Paul in 1 Corinthians basically says that there is no point in getting married since time is short! The last words of the book of Revelation, and hence of Scripture as we know it today, are a tender dialogue between Jesus and the Church: “He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” [and the Church replies] Amen. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22.20). An echo of this Maranatha can be heard in each of our Sunday celebrations when, during the Eucharistic prayer, after the priest says: “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith”, we all reply: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again”. The theme might be dormant but is has not disappeared.
The fact however that no timing is given for this return, and that it has not happened for the past 2000 years, cannot but undercut its motivational power. How to keep “dressed for action”, “alert”, “ready” for something so indefinite – and indefinable?
This is a paradox which lies at the heart of Christian faith – and which is not wholly unlike what happens in something which we might be more familiar with, namely dating. Here are 2 stories.
One of my friends who lives in London met his now husband -who at the time was living in the US- online. They talked for a couple of years before meeting in person for the first time – and during this whole period they did not know whether they could ever meet for complicated immigration reasons. However much they would talk and even see each other on video-calls, the fact that they had never met and that they did not know whether they ever would meet, made the connection somehow unreal for a long time.
Second story: two others of my friends met during the first day of their holidays on a remote island and fell in love with each other over the two weeks they spent together. Then they had a testing long-distance relationship for a couple of years. They messaged each other constantly, talked over the phone and on zoom daily, until one of them was finally able to move to London – and now they are happily living together.
With the first couple, the prospect of being together was hypothetical, distant, undefined. They had never met in person and even if there was a connection, it was difficult to commit to anything serious until they could meet in real life. This is how, most of the time, we picture to ourselves the way in which, as the Gospel says, the Son of Man will come at an unexpected hour. How can you be dressed for action, alert, ready, really expectant with regards to someone who not only is absent physically, but also we do not really know. In these cases, often what I am attracted to is less a real person than a projection. Certainly not enough to sustain motivation, passion, and expectation over a long period of time.
Things are different with the second couple. They had two weeks to get to know each other, talk, establish a deep connection. During the time they spent apart, even though -like the first couple- they could only communicate through messages, calls and on zoom, they were feeding on a relationship which already was there. Even though they too did not know when they could start living together, sustaining motivation, passion, and expectation was much easier because the connection was well established.
What these two examples should help us to understand is that when we think about the coming of Christ at the end of times, often we represent this to ourselves as the waiting for someone who is now absent. If this was the case, then yes it would be very difficult indeed to remain expectant and ready for this event. We would be very much like the first couple.
In fact, and this is the key, we are not waiting for someone who is now absent.
The whole point of Christian faith is that we gather every Sunday because we know that Christ is among us now, and because we want to listen to him through Scripture, be united to him through the Eucharist, recognize him in each other. We are not waiting for someone who is now absent to become present in some distant future. We are waiting for someone who is now present and who will become even more present.
Many spiritual authors say that Christ comes to us in three ways: he came when he was born 2000 years ago and will come again at the end of times. But they also add this: Christ comes to us every day, in every moment of our lives. And this is how our faith keeps us ready, alert, dressed for action – that is how it sustains our motivation.
To go back to the job interview I mentioned earlier, when the Gospel asks us: Where/how do you see yourself at the end of times? – we can answer quite simply: Where I am now – provided however that we are alert to the ways in which God is now coming in our lives, is now present among us, with us, in us.
Like my second couple, we are blessed with the connection already – and even if the presence of God in our lives is not always easy to spot, we know where and how to look for it – and this makes the whole difference. We only have to go back to the reassuring promise we heard in the opening sentence of today’s Gospel: Do not be afraid – for, as Jesus adds elsewhere, I am with you, now, and until the end of times. (Cf. Mt 28.20).